A good choice for the Iran deal negotiations - GulfToday

A good choice for the Iran deal negotiations

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Bagher Ghalibaf (right) and the head of the Iranian Atomic Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi (left), visit the Fordo nuclear power plant. AFP

Peacemakers have won the first skirmish in the Biden administration’s battle to re-enter the six-party 2015 deal with Iran for sanctions relief in exchange for limitations on its nuclear programme. Despite opposition from Congressional hawks and pro-Israel warriors, the man to be appointed lead the effort is Robert Malley, a former Obama era official who played a major role in the negotiations on the deal. Fortunately, Malley does not have to have Senate confirmation to take up the post.

Malley is a good choice. He has been involved in regional policy-making for decades. While in the Obama administration he opposed backing the exiled Syrian opposition movement, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood sponsored by Turkey, as well as sanctions against the Syrian government.

Malley justified his stand by saying, “We were part of what fuelled the conflict rather than stopped it.” Indeed. President Barack Obama’s misguided August 18th, 2011, statement that Syrian President Bashar Al Assad had lost legitimacy and should stand down provided impetus for proxy intervention, including by the US, and warfare. According to two well-informed Syrian sources, one a former senior member of the government, Assad was prepared to deliver reforms demanded by protesters until Obama spoke out. Malley seems to have understood that if Assad goes, the government would collapse, and Syria would fracture into a collection of fiefdoms run by warring warlords.

Having been long associated with the International Crisis Group which seeks to promote re- conciliation and prevent wars, Malley has considerable experience in conducting negotiations. Unlike other US policymakers, Malley’s background has enabled him to develop a deep understanding of Arab affairs. His father, Simon Malley, was an Egyptian Jewish journalist who worked as a foreign correspondent for Cairo daily al-Gomhuria, specialising in anti-colonial movements in Africa. He is credited with giving critical publicity to the Algerian freedom struggle against France. Robert Malley attended Yale University, became a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, and earned a law degree from Harvard at the same time Obama was a student there. Malley has written extensively on developments in the Third World and on Palestine.

Malley joins key former Obama officials who have been recruited by President Joe Biden into his foreign policy team at senior levels. Antony Blinken is Secretary State, Jake Sullivan is National Security Adviser, and Wendy Sherman is Deputy Secretary of State. During 2013-15, Sherman headed State Department officials in negotiations with the Iranians.

Biden has pledged to re-join the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), negotiated by the Obama administration, with the aim of taming tensions in this region.

This would involve US compliance for Iranian compliance. Tehran has reacted positively to this proposition. However, the sides are currently jockeying for position. The Iranians argue that since Donald Trump pulled out of the JCPOA in May 2018 while they were in full compliance, Biden should make the first move. Iranians also point out that they remained in compliance for a year while other JCPOA signatories failed to find ways to get round Trump’s increasingly punitive sanctions.

Therefore, Iran argues the US should return to the JCPOA and lift all sanctions covered by the JCPOA. Biden’s officials hold that Iran should first reach compliance by ceasing to enrich uranium to a level over the 3.67 per cent permitted by the deal, exporting nuclear material which exceeds the amount allowed, and warehousing excluded late model centrifuges which speed enrichment.

The sides must eschew this apres-vous-monsieur routine and get down to business as soon as possible. Iran is threatening to halt some but not all International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections of its nuclear sites by February 21st if there is no progress on the US return to the JCPOA.

The second skirmish in this battle is over timing. Biden initially took the position that the US should return to JCPOA quickly. This would be wise as it would halt Iranian violations and prevent the build-up of opposition to re-entry. However, Blinken said Iran will have to return to compliance and the US will have to assess progress before returning to the JCPOA. This is a blinkered view and will lead only to delay and frustration in Tehran and other members of the Biden team who see US compliance to be an urgent matter. National Security Adviser Sullivan put forward a more rapid timeline than Blinken suggested. Sullivan is certain to have the support of Malley.

Sullivan argued that by re-joining the JCOPA the administration will put Iran’s nuclear programme “in a box,” thereby preventing Iran from taking further steps away from the deal. He said delay enables Iran to “move closer to having enough fissile material for a (nuclear) weapon.”

This is nonsense. Most of Iran’s stock of enriched uranium has been processed to the levels of 3.67-4.5 per cent for electricity plants although Iran has recently begun to enrich to 20 per cent to fuel a small research reactor the US donated to Iran in the 1960s under the Atoms for Peace Programme. All this classifies as low enrichment. Bombs require high level 90 per cent purification.

Sullivan did say, however, that once the JCOPA is restored, the US, its international and regional allies, could join together to take on Iran’s expanding ballistic missile programme. This makes sense. Sanctions not related to the JCPOA could be used for leverage.

Iran says it has no intention of building nuclear weapons. It did embark during the Shah’s time on weapons research but discontinued this effort in September 2003. Libya did the same that December. Neither country were close to producing bombs. It is significant that their renunciation of nuclear weapons coincided with George W. Bush’s occupation of Iraq which, he falsely claimed, was justified because Baghdad had a nuclear weapons programme as well as an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.

These were bold-faced lies and have been exposed as such. In the run-up to the US war on Iraq, IAEA sent a team to investigate the claim about nuclear weaponry. The IAEA report, written by US nuclear expert Robert Kelley, refuted this claim. I was told this before the war and reported this crucial information from Baghdad in early 2003. I assume the Bush administration was informed but, as Kelley predicted, chose to ignore the facts of the matter. Weapons of mass destruction were not found by UN inspectors before the war or by the US military after the invasion and occupation.

It’s about time people stop telling dangerous lies.

Related articles